Sports Authority

Where sports and politics collide.

Mike Elk

In September 2012, Dave Zirin visits Rio de Janeiro's Estadio do Maracana--currently undergoing a major reconstruction for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Dave Zirin is the rare sportswriter who covers, in his words, the space where sports and politics collide.” His new book, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down (New Press), explores the intersection of sports and politics over the past three years, touching on the London Olympics and their role in the city’s anti-austerity riots, the lack of accountability after the Penn State sex-abuse scandals and the historic player lockouts in three out of the four major professional sports leagues. 

That was a huge eye-opener for me, the idea that there was this tradition of resistance politics in sports.

In Game Over, Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation, also digs into how massive public investment in sports stadiums has completely altered the way many regions approach economic development. To describe this trend, Zirin coins the term sporting shock doctrine,” a play on Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine”: the idea that after people experience a significant trauma, they become willing to accept harsh economic policies they wouldn’t otherwise. In These Times spoke with Zirin about his new book, the state of sports today and how he came to his breed of sportswriting.

How did you end up writing about sports and politics?

I grew up an absolute psychotic sports fan in New York City in the 1980s. I never really thought about politics that much, particularly with regards to sports, until 1996, when there was a player named Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was basically drummed out of the NBA. He was asked why he didn’t come out for the national anthem before games, and he said it was because he believed that the American flag was a symbol of oppression and tyranny throughout the world. This was before the era of the Internet — before you could support players who took these kinds of stands — and he really caught a ton of crap for it. And some talking head on ESPN said that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf must see himself in the tradition of rebel athletes likes Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith, John Carlos.

That was a huge eye-opener for me, the idea that there was this tradition of resistance politics in sports. It’s a very rich history that isn’t really taught, because it gets in the way of sports’ bottom-line interest, which is to sell us an image of a happy, stress-free escape from the world. But over the last three years, it’s [become] more and more difficult to reproduce that fiction.

When you write about the way cities publicly subsidize stadiums, you use the phrase sporting shock doctrine.” What do you mean by that?

In the 1990s, when so many cities were recovering from the shock of austerity and deindustrialization in the 1980s, you saw the growth of these stadiums. One of the reasons that they were able to get people to vote in these referendums — oftentimes by very large margins — to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into these stadiums is the fact that people were reeling. They were reeling emotionally. They were reeling financially. They were reeling at the thought that their cities were going to become empty shells. That does a couple things. First, it makes people more willing to accept the logic of corporate welfare, the logic of the bailout, the logic that working people exist to bail out people in power. And it also conditions people to accept that the best we’re going to do in our cities is non-union, serviceindustry labor — that these are the jobs of the future in our cities. That era marked the end of high-paying, stable union jobs, which, not coincidentally, were also the basis of how people afforded tickets to these games.

It’s so different now than it was in previous generations on every conceivable level, from a business level, an emotional level, a family level — as far as what people can afford. 

All of these things have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. The increasing numbers of player lockouts are to some degree those chickens coming home to roost, because you have team owners who can’t get the subsidies they were getting in the 1990s. They can’t get the referendums to pass anymore, and it’s created a much tighter dynamic between owners and players. 

You write about the Pittsburgh Pirates, my hometown team, who have had 20 straight losing seasons. They have always claimed poverty as an excuse for their failures on the field. But as you note, recently leaked internal league documents show that the Pirates were actually making considerable profits — while taking public subsidies. Local communities have no control over whether the owners actually spend that public money on fielding a good team.

It’s the least advantageous relationship possible between public subsidies and private capital. It’s this incredible blank check. In major league baseball, the anti-trust exemptions are so intense that it’s difficult to find any substantial financial records. The only reason that we know about the Pirates and the Marlins and other teams being profitable — and I write about this in the book — is because of leaked documents and whistleblowers. 

You note in your book that this isn’t solely a domestic issue. The World Cup and the Olympics are being hosted, increasingly, by developing countries and in the process, radically changing the way those countries are developed.

I’ve spent the last couple years going to places like South Africa, Vancouver, London, and these are very different places obviously — culturally, politically, historically — and yet you have these common factors anytime these megaevents come in. Huge public subsidies, massive crackdowns by the police, and the overturning of entire neighborhoods and the displacing of the population. Again, this is a sporting shock doctrine” because it allows for a massive reorganization in the city on a neoliberal basis for the benefit of a very few. They’re able to enact these policies that otherwise would never have been able to be pushed through, particularly the amount of deficit spending, because there’s this huge stress on nationalism and this idea that nobody thinks we can do it.”

One problem specific to the United States is that, in most states, the highest-paid public employees are football coaches making $5 million a year. And yet you show that for most schools, college football programs are not profitable at all. 

Far too rarely do we take a step back and say, Wow, our institutions of higher education have become the minor leagues for our professional sports franchises.” People in other countries look at that and think, Wow, you guys are nuts!” But there is no self-awareness that this might somehow fundamentally be a problem.

This industry has just exploded, particularly in the last 30 years with the rise of cable television, into a multi-billion dollar industry. You might have seen that ESPN just signed the contract to do the college football playoffs, and it’s something like $5.6 billion, and it’s all being done by what amounts to unpaid labor. And these kids — and that’s all they are, they’re kids, 18, 19 years old — they’re treated as this uneasy mix of chattel and gods on their campuses, which I would argue has a deeply abusive effect on them. There’s really nobody looking out for their individual interest.

You write that the NFL players union did relatively well in contract negotiations, increasing benefits for retired players and winning on key safety concerns. Why do you think that was?

I think the NFL Players Association had a very smart organizing strategy. Instead of just letting the league paint this as a fight between billionaires and millionaires — which is what leagues often do very successfully in these kinds of labor-management scrums — players politicized it. They said: What’s going on here is a lockout that’s going to affect not just players, but stadium workers. It’s going to affect people who pick up extra shifts at restaurants around the stadium. It’s going to affect the people who park cars. It’s going to affect all these things right at the time when the United States is in the midst of a serious recession.” They spoke at labor rallies involving other workers.

This is all very new ground for sports unions. Newspapers used to have reporters who covered something called the labor beat, and now that that’s largely non-existent, the only time you really see mass coverage of labor conflict in this country is on the sports page. So when a sports union takes itsresponsibilities as a union both seriously and politically, it can have a very strong effect on consciousness.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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